Opera Reviews
15 April 2021
Untitled Document

Monteverdi gets a makeover

by Moore Parker
Monteverdi: L'incoronazione di Poppea
Salzburg Festival
20 August 2018
Ana Quintans (Virtý / Drusilla), Ensemble

Incongruity pervaded this stage event - with the austere nobility of Monteverdi’s score confronted by a bedlam of images and frenzied activity, and with disparate casting pitting polarized vocal endowment, technique, and style.

The raked stage was fitted with two recesses which housed the 16 members of Les Arts Florissants, with the musical proceedings led by William Christie from one of two harpsichords. The instrumentalists participated indirectly in the action, enjoying glitzy jackets and carnival hats (with one sporting a life-sized model duck), occasionally rising from their seats in solo passages, some wearing sunglasses, and with Christie appearing particularly withdrawn and hardly imposing any artistic leash on the proceedings.

Programme photographs reveal that the floor area is designed to set the atmosphere of decadent indulgence in colourful images showing a sprawling mass of intertwined bodies (unfortunately not visible from the House für Mozart’s front stalls). Sets and props (Jan Lauwers) included a magnificent revolving chandelier-installation and for the finale, two gigantic crowns for Poppea and Nerone. A bizarre mix of costumes (Lemm & Barkey) ranged from elegant sweeping robes to Nerone’s neo-hippie outfit in flowing bell bottoms, and included a good measure of slinky underwear for the more blessed figures in the show.

In this - director Jan Lauwers’ first presentation of an operatic work - he has drawn mainly upon physical movement or dance* for effect - oddly askant to the piece, and its score. 

As the proceedings got underway, two projection screens dropped to reveal images by a cameraman who zoomed between Poppea and Nerone pulling faces backstage - perhaps positioning the entire event within the subjective consciousness of the two leading protagonists before they don their stage identities?

Stage-centre featured a small round podium upon which solo dancers took turns at perpetually rotating (in a clockwise direction) throughout the entire proceedings - perhaps symbolising the human state imprisoned within the implacable wheel of time or fate?

Maybe a clue is offered in the English programme notes on Lauwers: One of the principal features of his work is transparent, “thinking” acting and the paradox that exists between “acting” and “performing”.

Moving through the plot, the excellent cast of singers - while intense in expression - went barely beyond standard operatic gesture, pose, and assignment, with the entire pastiche of activity somehow landing “not with a bang but a whimper.”

Sonya Yoncheva’s Poppea enjoys early footsteps in the singer’s Baroque background, but recent ventures in some of opera’s most testing soprano roles have drawn new dimensions from this essentially lyric soprano voice to the degree that - even while scaling her now voluptuous tone with acumen and taste - this remained a Poppea (and a superlative one in all respects) who could easily overshadow voices of lesser scope and ably swamp any frugal band of period instruments. 

Frenetically vigorous and credible within another context, Kate Lindsey’s blanched, vibrato-less, Nerone jarred vocally opposite this opulent Poppea (as indeed did the pairing of the two characters in their implausible physical disparity) - and despite good intent, this slight, sexually-crazed, neurotic figure ultimately irritated more than he impressed. 

Carlo Vistoli fared better with his rich-toned countertenor, fine sense of style, and a convincing portrayal of the desperate Ottone, while Stéphanie d’Oustrac scored an absolute hit with her passionately-moving Ottavia.

Additional gems included Ana Quintans Virtù/Drusilla, as well as Marcel Beekman’s (an unfailingly colourful and intense artist) Nutrice (and Famigliare I), in addition to Dominique Visse’s spirited Arnalta. A fine lyric baritone, Renato Dolcini seemed oddly cast for the mature bass demands of Seneca.  

The pared-down Les Arts Florissants went well with the flow of this somewhat unstructured reading (in music they could probably perform in their sleep) but while predictably eloquent and stylish, the instrumental element in this compounded concept did at times risk suffocation in presence and effect, besieged by the unrelenting stage action.   

*Sarah Luzt (Needcompany)
*Bodhi Project & Sead (Salzburg Experimental Academy of Dance)

Text © Moore Parker
Photo © Salzburger Festspiele / Maarten Vanden Abeele
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